Study Guide

Ellen Key in The Children's Era

By Margaret Sanger

Ellen Key

Think of Ellen Key as proof that what was considered awesome in 1900 is considered…less awesome today. Kind of like how cars were seen in 1900 as being to ecologically friendly alternative to mountains of horse poop everywhere and today cars are seen as being way less eco-friendly than riding your bike, Ellen Kay was crazy-progressive by 1900 standards.

But she leaves a wee bit to desire from the vantage point of the 21st century.

Ellen Key was a Swedish teacher, writer, and lecturer. Her most famous and influential work is The Century of the Child, which Margaret Sanger cites in "The Children's Era." The Century of the Child was published in 1900 and translated into English in 1909. In this work on the education of children, Key addresses issues of motherhood and childhood, the ideal conditions for healthy child development, the ideal home, and the goals of education.

Ellen Key is generally considered a feminist writer, but only some of her ideas would make her popular among 21st-century feminists. Some would not. Like Margaret Sanger, her primary concern was the development of healthy children born to healthy mothers and raised in ideal conditions.

The Ideal Home = The Impossible Home?

In the ideal home, according to Key, the parents are social equals, meaning that women and men have equal rights and protections and voting privileges. In fact, everyone in the home is essentially equal. The children are treated like human beings in their own right and not as extensions of their parents. She writes that children, "have duties and rights that are just as firmly established as those of their parents." (Source)

In her view, punishment should never be corporal, but always "natural." In other words, if you lose or damage a toy, the punishment is a natural consequence of the crime: you don't have the toy to play with anymore.

Perhaps because she received her education mostly at home, Key advocated home as the ideal classroom for children under about nine or ten and mothers as their ideal teachers. She believed the mother-child relationship was so important to society that mothers and children should be financially supported by the government, not by the work of fathers, as was typical in middle-class families of the time. These ideas helped shape some child care laws in socialist nations of the 20th century.

Of course, this means that the mother has to make motherhood her profession. Key writes:

It does mean that our soul is to be filled by the child, just as the man of science is possessed by his investigations and the artist by his work. The child should be in one's thoughts when one is sitting at home or walking along the road, when one is lying down or when one is standing up. (Source)

Whew. That doesn't leave a lot of time for the mother to develop any ideas outside of her child—but that's okay with Key.

And it's also probably part of why she's not remembered as fondly as Maria Montessori and other contemporary educators who had similar ideas about child-centered education…but didn't expect the mother to do it all.

"You Do You," Says Key

As children grew up, according to Key, they should be in coed (boys and girls together) classrooms that were thoroughly integrated in terms of social class. Key believed this exposure would help build the "altruistic impulse," or ability to care for others, that she was so concerned with. (Source)

Later, in what we would call high school, students shouldn't be so concerned with pursuing prestigious careers. Key's idea was that every student should be guided toward becoming his or her best self, whether that meant they went into theoretical or practical fields.

The central idea guiding all Key's theory, though, was this: there's a constant struggle in people between selfishness and unselfishness. She believed the goal of education was to help people live a fulfilling life by finding that balance.

Just Pick and Choose the Parts You Like

Some of Ellen Key's ideas are still considered valid, and some are, um, not.

She was all about children being cared for and educated at home well into what we would now call the elementary years, and that didn't really take. However, other ideas about education have. She was for public school for all children, and she wanted learning to be child-motivated, as it is in many schools today. She was against corporal, or physical, punishment…and that's definitely not allowed in schools and is generally frowned on in homes today.

Key's works were going into reprints even at the end of the 20th century, so some of her ideas were still being taught and discussed almost a century after she wrote them down.

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